TALLAHASSEE — Florida A&M University's law school overcame its tumultuous track record of leadership turnover, faculty rancor and academic concerns on Friday, when the American Bar Association granted full accreditation — a national stamp of approval that is vital to the school's reputation and long-term survival.
The decision by the ABA's Council on Legal Education Opportunity is a major victory for the historically black College of Law, which reopened in 2002, more than three decades after legislators shut it down amid court-ordered desegregation.
Lawmakers reopened the law school in Orlando with $40 million in taxpayer dollars — and high expectations about training a more diverse pool of attorneys for the increasingly diverse Sunshine State.
FAMU officials and law school alumni said Friday's ABA decision is proof the law school has moved beyond the earlier struggles that garnered so many negative headlines.
"It's probably the best news we've had in 2009," said FAMU graduate Sen. Al Lawson, who spent 12 years working to get the law school reopened. "It's been a long haul, and I think it's a real credit to the administration."
Until Friday, FAMU law had only provisional, or temporary, accreditation. Graduates of an unaccredited law school cannot take the Florida Bar exam.
"This is obviously a particularly historic event, given all that has happened in the past," said law school dean LeRoy Pernell. "Certainly accreditation is an indication of quality. And it allows us to continue to provide an important opportunity to a wide array of individuals, to make them leaders in the legal profession."
Pernell arrived at FAMU in 2007 to find a law school that, after two years without a permanent dean, was beset by internal strife.
Pernell's mission, laid out by newly installed FAMU president James Ammons, was clear: Make whatever changes and improvements are necessary for full accreditation.
The problems were numerous. Faculty complained of unequal treatment and favoritism. Students, many of whom came in with low LSAT scores and GPAs, said they weren't getting enough academic help and preparation for the Florida Bar.
A scathing ABA report released in the spring of 2008, based on a site visit that occurred before Pernell took over, described the "negative dynamic" among faculty as "extraordinary."
ABA officials noted "continuing concern" about faculty members' "lack of scholarly productivity." The report also cited FAMU's bar passage rates — consistently far below the average of Florida law schools, and among the worst in the state — as a serious concern for accreditation.
Pernell, former dean at Northern Illinois University's law school, moved quickly. He hired seven new faculty members and a new registrar. He worked to strengthen communications with the main university in Tallahassee.
This fall a new director and a new coordinator will work to improve and expand academic support and Bar exam preparation programs for students.
Pernell also created a new position, associate dean for faculty research and development, to help address the ABA concerns over scholarly research.
He said faculty are working more "cohesively," and he has established clear policies to eliminate the unfair treatment and favoritism cited in the past.
"Everyone has tried to pull together, recognizing that we are a community of scholars dedicated to making sure our students are successful," Pernell said.
Moving forward, he said, the law school will focus on recruiting strong students and "spreading the word about the opportunity that is here."
Enrollment now stands at about 620.
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.